An Alien Territory? Local Studies versus Special Collections

Here’s an interesting blog post by Tony Pilmer, a Local Studies librarian sharing what he learned from a year working in a library based in a think-tank/learned society.  I agree: local studies and special collections work have masses in common.  This is especially true of university special collections.

Advertisement for Novello, Bradford, back cover of the Historical Pageant of Bradford, a book in Bradford University's Special Collections that would also be found in Local Studies
Advertisement for Novello, Bradford, back cover of the Historical Pageant of Bradford, a book in Bradford University’s Special Collections that would also be found in a Local Studies setting and is stuffed with wonderful adverts such as this one.

I think I’m right in saying that most university special collections have significant collections of archives and/or books that are “local”, relating to the city or region.  Why?  In most cases, universities grew out of the local industries and colleges and thus their collecting reflected local needs and interests.  Individuals, companies or organisations looking for homes for their papers would naturally contact the local university, certainly in the days before county record offices were established.  Academics in universities would look for local themes to research to build their own careers and then donate their findings to their organisation.  And so on …  Want real examples?  Take a look at the distinctive and rich local collections held by, say, Aberdeen, Nottingham or Exeter universities.  Students and staff benefit from the opportunity to work on collections which are distinctive and which overlap with other material nearby.

There are differences of course, between our missions, the types of material we collect, the users we attract and how we work with them.  However we have enough in common to make university/local authority joint services possible – witness for instance the Hive, the Keep, and the Hull History Centre.

But we don’t need to merge and share a building in order to learn from other services!  Check out this great collection of case studies which the Local Studies Group have archived – lots of good ideas which could be adapted for outreach by other heritage organisations.  In tough times, it makes sense for services to work together e.g. to discuss collecting policies, to reach out to each other’s user groups and to co-operate on collections care or emergency planning.

PS I’m aware I’ve conflated record offices and local studies services in the above to some extent … though these are often merged nowadays anyway …

PPS I’m also aware that not all special collections are quite as “local” in their focus as ours at Bradford.  However most collections of rare books have distinctive qualities that reflect their locality even if the subject matter is not particularly “local” – their provenance, custodial history, bindings, patterns of use … and the insights of Local Studies colleagues may help us in understanding and promoting them. Witness the Portico Library, whose collections of 19th century books give “a tangible insight into the culture of Boomtown Manchester, reflecting the literary, intellectual and cultural mindset” of the Industrial Revolution.  As the texts of rare books become readily available via online sources, increasingly use and interest of rare books collections centres around these distinctive qualities.


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